The Essential Guide to Backyard Camping
An instant overnight getaway is only a backyard away. Follow our simple checklist to make packing a cinch. Then feed your campfire soul with 22 recipes that just taste better under the stars.
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Cabin fever much? Whether you’re the camping type, the glamping type, or the thought has never crossed your mind, backyard camping can cure that restless feeling. When you need to get away from the clutter at home or the monotony of your routine, transform your own backyard into a makeshift campsite. But don’t get too caught up in definitions. There are no rules to backyard camping! The concept is loose by design, so it can work for just about anyone who has a little outside space by their residence. It’s low hassle, affordable, doesn’t require much planning, and the hot showers aren’t bad either (if you’re willing to utilize your indoors for a few modern conveniences).
Even the most reluctant campers will have fun
Admittedly, I’ve never been much of a camper. I have a comically irrational fear of being eaten alive by spiders while I sleep. But backyard camping is the perfect compromise; it speaks to my modest adventure-seeking sensibilities without provoking my arachnophobia. As I soak up the sun and fresh air, I get to take a much-needed break from the endless chores, spend quality time with my family in a fun new way, and participate in all sorts of camping activities. And yet, I have access to the house in case the spiders do want me for dinner. It’s comforting to have a backup plan!
There's something for everyone
Backyard camping is a no-brainer for families, but it also makes a great solo adventure or romantic staycation with a partner. Depending on your company and interests, you can bird watch, stargaze, play lawn games, cards or board games, sing campfire songs, read an entire book cover-to-cover, drink cocktails, or tell campfire stories.
But really, it's all about the food
But perhaps the number one reason to go backyard camping is the food. There’s the obvious, requisite roasted marshmallows and ensuing s’mores. That alone should be enough of an excuse to roll out the sleeping bags. But fire up the grill and you’ve got popcorn for the perfect campfire snack, smoky hot dogs and hamburgers to serve with grilled toppings, and pretty much anything you can wrap in foil — from eggy breakfast sandwiches to orange peel-covered cinnamon rolls. In the evening when the sun sets and the temperature starts to drop, sip on hot cocoa from a thermos and live it up with campy campfire cocktails.
Let's get started!
In this article, we’ll lure you outside and turn you into a backyard camping super fan. First, we’ll show you what you need to sleep comfortably under the stars, then tempt you with fun backyard camping ideas to keep even the biggest curmudgeons engaged — from skeptical older kids to grouchy grownups. Finally, we’ll seal the deal with easy backyard-friendly recipes. We promise, s’mores won’t be the only thing on the menu.
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What to bring and do
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Backyard camping checklist
Good news! The list of must-haves for a backyard campout is much shorter than for camping in the wilderness. For example, you can store perishable meal ingredients in the house fridge. That means you don’t have to lug a cooler outside and fill it with ice. Backyard camping also means you don’t have to panic if you forget something. Unlike with conventional camping, a child’s favorite stuffed animal or a deck of cards is a short walk inside, and no one’s going to tell on you for retrieving them. Similarly, no need to use foliage for toilet paper; bathroom breaks can also happen indoors. Read our suggested packing list below to see how you can be comfortable on your backyard camping trip with just a few essential items. No long lists or packing wizardry required!
Sleeping: tarp or ground cloth, camping tent, sleeping bags, air mattress (for glamping!), extra blankets, pillows, yoga mats for added cushioning
Seating: lawn chairs, patio chairs, bleacher seat portable cushions, picnic blankets, hammock
Bug protection: bug spray, citronella candles
Lighting: flashlight, lantern, fire pit, string lights, glow sticks
Cold weather protection: warm hats, gloves, hand and foot warmer packets, scarves, slipper socks
Sun protection: sunscreen, sun hats, outdoor umbrella, sunglasses, plenty of water to drink
Dining: picnic blankets, folding table, patio table
Cooking: foil, foil pans, cooking utensils, plates, cast iron skillet, pot with lid, grill (and charcoal if needed), tongs, servingware, portable stove if no grill, Yummly Smart Thermometer (so you don't have to guess when your grilled meat is done cooking!)
Backyard camping activities
There is no shortage of fun camping activities, and many of them are backyard-friendly. Hiking and fishing in a backyard might get a little tricky, but dominoes, campfire songs, and staring into the night sky? You bet.
Lawn games: corn hole, frisbee, ring toss, freeze dance
Other games: cards (from poker to Go Fish), trivia, charades, board games, dominoes, scavenger hunt
Storytelling: ghost stories, childhood memories, children’s picture books for storytime, puppet show
Singing: instruments, song lyric books
S’mores: marshmallow roasting sticks (a wire hanger from your closet will do just fine), ingredients for s’mores
Bird-watching: binoculars, bird guide
Stargazing: constellation guide (or app)
Arts and crafts: knitting, crocheting, watercolors, painting rocks
Reading: magazines, books, newspapers
Puzzles: Sudoku, Hangman, Jumble
Outdoor movie night: projector, projector screen or white bed sheet
Pulling weeds: If you’re in the yard, you might as well be productive. Just kidding!
Backyard camping main dishes
Backyard camping meals run the gamut from unfussy and simple, to complex and gourmet. It’s up to you if you want a true camping experience or a modified (but still awesome) one. That’s because when you’re just steps away from your home, you have the option to use your kitchen, its specialty equipment, appliances, gadgets, and more. The recipes in this section celebrate the spirit of camping, calling up the flavors of a campsite and tapping into some of the traditional cooking techniques used when camping (i.e. foil packet, anyone?). But even if you don’t have a barbecue, or would prefer to prep and cook the food indoors, these recipes will satiate any backyard camper.
These make-ahead breakfast burritos are an ideal campsite meal. You assemble them at home and wrap them individually in foil. Store them in the fridge until the morning, and when you wake up to the sound of birds chirping, albeit from your backyard lawn, all you have to do is reheat the burritos on the grill.
Made with just tortillas, peanut butter, and fruit, this riff on a classic schoolyard lunch comes together quickly outside, no kitchen necessary. The fruit could be jelly, but it could also be fresh slices of banana or strawberry. It goes without saying, this quesadilla is kid-approved, but let’s be honest, peanut butter and jelly transcends age.
Transform an English muffin into a toasty pizza sandwich over the fire or grill. Split the muffin open, spread pizza sauce on top, and sprinkle cheese and toppings. The recipe author recommends using a pie iron to hold the sandwich together over the fire, but wrapping in foil is another acceptable option. Handheld food is the way to go when you want no-fuss, easy dining and clean-up.
Camp food doesn’t have to be heavy and carb-loaded. This iron- and protein-rich cobb salad is made with spinach, hard-boiled eggs, goat cheese, grape tomatoes, shredded chicken, crispy prosciutto, and trail mix. Wait, trail mix? Yep, dried fruit and nuts, a mainstay of camping food, are welcome additions to most salads, and adding them all at once straight from the trail mix bag saves time. Just avoid the desserty varieties that contain chocolate pieces or peanut butter cups!
An entire dinner can be made all at once when given the royal, er, foil packet treatment. Turkey meatloaf sits on a bed of fresh veggie succotash and it all gets wrapped up together for a tight seal, then cooked on the grill or campfire. Minimal dishes! Feel free to swap out the ground turkey with ground beef. And if you need to save time, a frozen bag of veggies will work just as well.
Mac and cheese is always a crowd pleaser. But cooking it in a cast iron skillet on the grill instantly gives it the camping vibe. This version calls for bacon and jalapeño, which you can leave out, or go to town with. Boil the noodles ahead of time to make assembly a cinch.
Prepare a simple chili of ground beef, tomato sauce, and baked beans, and drench your hot dog in it. That’s all there is to making these campfire chili dogs. Total comfort food, and especially satisfying to eat while gathered around a fire in the backyard as the temperature cools down in the evening. Serve with grilled baked potatoes and thick slices of juicy watermelon for a full camp meal.
Backyard camping side dishes and snacks
Once you’ve identified your main dish, what else will you serve with it? Check out the backyard camping side dishes below to complete your meal. And between meals, your backyard camping adventure is going to need some snacks, obviously! Munch on them while playing cards or sitting around a cozy fire pit.
This recipe has no measurements, and that’s intentional. Grilled nachos are more of a “choose your own adventure” dish. Select the toppings you want, go heavy or light on the cheese, swap out tortilla chips with thinly sliced sweet potatoes, and adjust the spiciness level to your preference. It’s fun to eat these right out of the pan, so a foil pan is recommended over a cast iron skillet; the foil pan cools down quickly, whereas the cast iron remains hot for awhile and could burn your fingers.
What campsite would be complete without trail mix? Homemade DIY trail mix is fast and customizable. Almonds, pumpkin seeds, raisins, dried cranberries, and chocolate-covered peanuts combine for a sweet and salty flavor profile that’s exactly what you should be snacking on in the great outdoors (of your backyard!).
While you likely have access to a microwave when backyard camping, resist the urge to zap a bag of microwave popcorn indoors to bring outside. You can very easily pop kernels on the grill. Pre-combine a spice blend of nutritional yeast, smoked paprika, red chili flakes, and garlic salt in a ziptop bag — feel free to do this step ahead of time in your kitchen. Pop the kernels in a pot over the fire, and finish with a drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkling of the spice blend. Snack time!
Trail mix is always a good thing to bring on a camping adventure, and regardless of the specific trail mix you pack, it’s probably some combination of dried fruit, nuts, and seeds, right? Not this one. S’mores trail mix is one of those things you wish you had known about when you were 5, but are grateful to know about now. Marshmallows, graham cracker cereal, mini chocolate chips, pretzel sticks, and Rice Chex join forces for a dry, snackable version of s’mores.
Corn on the cob makes a great side dish for a backyard camping meal. No utensils necessary, and corn is delicious cooked on a grill. Mexican street corn is a specific corn on the cob dish that’s becoming increasingly popular on restaurant menus in the U.S. To prepare this interpretation of Mexican street corn, you simply grill the corn until it’s slightly charred, and then slather it with a mixture of mayo, sour cream, and fresh cilantro, followed by a sprinkling of Parmesan cheese, lime juice, and chili powder.
Campfire cocktails and cocoa
Camping is a great backdrop to enjoy unique, creative, comforting beverages. Try mixing up a fun cocktail, preparing a rich hot cocoa, or merging the two and sipping on spiked hot chocolate. Campfire cocktails and cocoa don’t just taste good; they warm the body and the soul, especially when night falls and you could use a little extra warmth. All the better if you can serve the drinks in enamel camping mugs or a vintage thermos.
You might never return to instant packets after making your own hot cocoa. Milk, sugar, cocoa powder, and vanilla are common ingredients in a from-scratch hot cocoa, but this recipe calls for one more thing, and it caught me by surprise! You add mini marshmallows right into the pot to melt and blend in with the other ingredients, creating a richer taste and thicker texture. When you’re backyard camping, forego the ceramic mugs and opt to drink hot cocoa from a thermos.
This grown-up version of hot chocolate combines the elements of s’mores with whiskey and honey. Dip the rims of your camping mugs in melted chocolate and then crushed graham crackers for an elegant, and highly edible presentation.
Vodka, lime, and ginger beer give you a classic Moscow Mule. To get it to camping status, you add some burnt caramel liqueur and garnish with toasted marshmallows! If you can’t find burnt caramel liqueur, replace that portion with additional vodka. Serve in traditional copper mugs, or enamel camping mugs.
16. Hot Toddy
A Hot Toddy is a hot cocktail, a great way to warm you up on a cold evening. Brew some black tea, pour in whiskey or bourbon, add honey to sweeten it, and finish with a squeeze of fresh lemon juice. Mixing the cocktail directly in the mug makes for easy clean-up, which is a good thing when the drink is likely to put you to sleep!
Backyard camping dessert recipes
We’d be remiss not to include s’mores-themed desserts in this compilation, so have at them! But did you know you can grill pie at your campsite? Or bake cinnamon buns inside a hollowed-out orange over a flame? These backyard camping desserts show us just how versatile cooking can be.
In the summertime, pound cake is often cooked on a grill and served with berries. This take on the dessert uses a really fun deconstructed approach and requires little effort. Buy a pound cake and cut it into cubes. Toast the cubes in a buttered skillet on the grill, remove from the heat and add berries and chocolate caramel-filled candies (such as Rolos), cover with foil, and let the berries and chocolate melt for a few minutes. That’s it!
This recipe deserves to be filed away in the “Brilliant Camping Hacks” folder. You buy a tube of refrigerator cinnamon buns, place each raw bun in a hollowed-out orange peel, wrap the orange in foil, and cook over the grill. Remove and discard the peel to reveal perfectly-cooked cinnamon buns! You can feel good about how environmentally-friendly the compostable orange peel baking vessels are, plus now you’ve got plenty of orange slices to snack on as you backyard camp your day away. No one will know this was your first time backyard camping.
19. Campfire Cookies
I’ll admit, these cookies are probably not something you want to prepare outside while camping. But they will be big hits when you’re dining at your backyard campsite. Sugar cookies are decorated with chocolate frosting, crushed Oreo cookies, rock candy, shredded coconut, and pretzel sticks to look like an actual campfire. Assembling, while perhaps done indoors, would make for a great activity to do with the kids the day before their big backyard adventure to get them excited.
20. Campfire Banana
I’ve always thought of a grilled stuffed banana as a camping must-have because it couldn’t be easier. The recipe I’m most used to is just two ingredients: banana and chocolate chips. You cut a slit lengthwise down the banana, stuff the center with chocolate chips, and wrap the whole thing in foil to heat on the grill. This Campfire Banana recipe adds peanut butter and marshmallows, and I’m not complaining!
I’ll bet you didn’t think you’d be making a pie while camping, but this grilled strawberry pie is too simple to ignore. Buy a refrigerated pie crust and unroll it into a foil pie pan. Spread out your filling of strawberries, cornstarch, and sugar across the dough. Fold the edges of the crust over to cover part of the filling, much like making a galette. Use a second foil pie pan placed upside down on the grill to create a little platform on the grill so the pie can be elevated while cooking. Cover the grill and wait the agonizing 20 minutes to have your first ever (but definitely not your last!) campsite pie.
22. S'mores Nachos
Though the definition of backyard camping is quite loose, one of the only rules you must follow is that s’mores makes an appearance — or you haven’t really backyard camped. I don’t make the rules! These S’mores Nachos make your backyard getaway official. Since you might not have a fire pit or real campfire in your backyard, grilling s’mores in a cast iron skillet on the barbecue will give you a similar result. And how fun to think of them as nachos and dip graham crackers in the melty chocolate and toasty marshmallows.
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